Project Team: Frances Titterington, Steven Morrison and Aurelie Aubry

Background:

Since its peak in 1998, the NI sheep flock has been in steady decline. In order to remain competitive and be more sustainable, improved breeding and management strategies are needed to drive greater technical efficiency within sheep flocks.  Current and past research programmes funded by DAERA, AgriSearch and LMC have identified several breeding, feeding and other management strategies to improve ewe productivity in terms of the number and weight of lambs produced per ewe.  However, if it is crucial to increase productivity, it is also important to ensure that lambs are produced to current market specifications.  

  

Despite sheep being EID tagged prior to slaughter, only one of the three main sheep abattoirs in NI is able to read ear tags as they enter the kill line, thus enabling a carcass to be attributed to individual animals.  The second abattoir is developing a new system and will be able to read individual tags in 2019.  This information is crucial as it provides feedback to farmers on individual animal slaughter characteristics, improves traceability and increases the potential to genetically select for improvement within the sheep flock.  This step towards the development of a system could be applied across NI to allow producers to link their individual animal performances to genetic and other management information.  The benefits of being able to make those linkages between individual animals and post-mortem characteristics, such as the extent of fluke infestation, are now well recognised among sheep producers.  This has led to the successful development and use of automatic reading systems in abattoirs elsewhere in the UK and internationally (in particular New Zealand). In addition, a more systematic link between meat characteristics data from the abattoir and individual animals would greatly reduce the time that would otherwise be required from scientific staff to obtain these data, thus reducing the costs of future research proposals or creating opportunities to increase the scope of the studies. 

 

 

Project Plan:

Using integrated industry databases (OvIS) this proposed project will monitor key performance indicators for the Northern Ireland sheep industries and in doing so will identify and quantify, on a near real-time basis, the limiting factors in sheep production systems in Northern Ireland.  Linked to this, research will be undertaken to underpin improved biological efficiency of sheep systems, thereby improving the competitiveness and environmental impact of the red-meat sector.  

 

The requirement for individual animal electronic identification (EU Regulation 21/2004) provides a unique opportunity to develop a database containing information from which individual animal performance can be determined along with information on genetic background.  It is proposed that the efficiency of sheep production in Northern Ireland is monitored by a centralised database (OvIS).  Through the integration of data from APHIS and meat plants, an annual assessment of the weight of carcass produced per day of age will be determined for Northern Ireland production systems.  Likewise, an annual assessment of lambs produced per ewe per year will be determined for sheep systems.   

 

The programme will analyse industry data and report at 12-month intervals to the Northern Ireland sheep industry on key performance indicators including (1) estimated lamb output per ewe (2) estimated lamb growth rates (3) carcass weights, conformation and fat class.  Furthermore, data from this database will be analysed to examine the effect of gender and carcass weight on conformation and fat classification and to examine how these relationships vary through the season (with diet type). Overall, this programme will provide crucial information on which future strategic goals for the Northern Ireland sheep sector can be set and progress monitored towards agreed targets. OvIS creates the potential to develop benchmarking tools for farmers to evaluate the physical performance of their flock leading to the possibility of using commercial data to undertake genetic evaluations for sheep.

 

Project Objectives:

The aim of this proposal is to provide tools to monitor key performance indicators for the Northern Ireland sheep industry and in doing so will identify and quantify, on a near real-time basis, the limiting factors in sheep production systems in Northern Ireland.  Research will be undertaken to underpin improved production efficiency, thereby improving the competitiveness and environmental impact of the red-meat sector.  

 

The specific objectives of the programme are detailed below:

 

Automate sheep data collection from abattoirs and APHIS, by installing permanent upload tools in abattoirs, and web services to automatically link with APHIS and a detailed database can be developed to analyse and report at 12 month intervals to the Northern Ireland sheep industry on key performance indicators obtained from new integrated data (OvIS data base - integrating APHIS and meat plant data) including (1) estimated lamb output per ewe (2) estimated lamb growth rates (3) carcass weights, conformation and fat class; and a range of decision support tools to allow sheep farmers real time access to their flock data can be created, specifically a carcass benchmarking tool to assess performance of their lambs and compare performance across different time periods/ against similar animals in different flocks. 

 

Additional information:

This project will use industry data to report production factors that limit sheep production efficiency (particularly growth performance and carcass quality). A sufficiently large dataset will allow effects of gender and carcass weight on conformation/fat class to be determined and how these relationships vary through the season with diet type, enabling the industry to formulate strategic goals and monitor progress against agreed targets.